12/07/10 2:11pm
12/07/2010 2:11 PM

I read with interest Democratic Party Chairman Vinny Villella’s column last week [Dec. 2] about the Riverhead budget process this year. Mr. Villella attempts to pull budget numbers out of context and patchwork them into a sinister story about how this year’s budget was adopted.  In all fairness to our Riverhead Town supervisor, Mr. Walter, and this Town Board, I found Mr. Villella’s criticism unfair and smacking a little of partisan politics. After all, I think that our former supervisor, Democrat Phil Cardinale has to accept at least some of the blame for our current situation. Of course, being the leader of a political party myself, I suppose I could be painted with the same brush, so let’s instead look at the facts.

This year, in a completely refreshing way, the Town Board was honest with taxpayers and issued a budget that did not employ one-shot tax gimmicks to cover up budget shortfalls. This Town Board did not exaggerate revenue sources with fictitious land sales, pie-in-the-sky resort plans and unrealized lawsuit settlements, as was done in the 2010 budget. This Town Board took the bold step of reducing town employees and salaries, something which takes conscience and courage to do. This Town Board, saddled with huge increases in health care benefits, insurance and the debt from Mr. Cardinale’s landfill were able to make tough choices and still reduce town spending and they did it all in an open, transparent fashion.

No one likes to see people lose their jobs, but the reality is that 75 percent of the town’s budget goes to pay salaries. What cost cutting measures would Mr. Villella or Mr. Cardinale propose to reduce spending and why didn’t either one of them do so when they were supervisor? On Jan. 1, Riverhead will be without a number of part-time employees making less than $10,000 per year yet receiving more than $18,000 in health benefits. We have reduced the overall workforce while still maintaining the same level of service to the residents.

We can attempt to put a high-gloss shine on the story but when it comes right down to it, the people spoke on Election Day and they called for reduced government spending and a reduction in the size of government. In a time where the State of New York’s pension and health care systems increased the town’s cost by $1.6 million dollars, this budget reduced overall town spending by almost $800,000.

For too long the town has operated as if it had an unlimited credit limit and we only had to pay the minimum balance. The tax increase that the town has adopted is far less than what would have been required had we continued along the same path. The bottom line is, something had to be done and Mr. Walter has shown the political courage to do it. I am proud of this Town Board for cleaning up the town’s debt. We are sowing the seeds which will reap a rich harvest for Riverhead. Stay tuned and stay positive.

Mr. Saladino is the town Conservative Party chairman and a part-time deputy town attorney.

11/30/10 8:35pm
11/30/2010 8:35 PM

The town supervisor is budget officer and chief financial officer of the town. As a former supervisor, I prepared several budgets that I submitted to the Town Board. Over my lifetime in Riverhead, I’ve watched supervisors before and after me do the same. But never before has the town seen a show like that put on this year by Supervisor Sean Walter and this Town Board.

Act I began Sept. 30 with the presentation of the supervisor’s budget, which called for the dismissal of 13 employees yet included a $70,000 increase to the supervisor’s personnel budget to insure continued employment of the supervisor’s campaign manager. The supervisor’s budget also included $170,000 in deferred compensation for elected officials, political appointees and department heads, items not disclosed in posted salaries.

Yet, Mr. Walter somehow failed to include in his budget $150,000 in mandated expenses for step increases required by contract for civil service employees and also failed to include over $200,000 for dispatcher salaries and benefits mandated by last years’ referendum. Despite his omission of these required expenses, the supervisor’s budget featured, in the midst of a painful recession, the highest tax increase of any town on Long Island.

Act II opened with the budget tragedy descending into farce. Between Sept. 30 and Nov. 20, many contentious budget meetings were held by the Town Board. Most noteworthy was the incivility of Town Board members to each other and to town employees pleading for their jobs. The highlight came when Mr. Walter refused to permit the president of the employee union, Bill Walsh, to speak at a public meeting. Here is where tragedy became farce when Mr. Walsh declared that Mr. Walter was a “Chickensh– for not allowing me to speak,” as reported by the News-Review.

Act III commenced as the all-Republican Town Board voted 4-1 against the supervisor’s budget but then failed to muster the necessary three votes to make any change to it. Months of budget meetings came to no purpose.

After the failed budget vote, the supervisor’s original budget became by default the town’s 2011 final budget. This budget is now law and features: (1) a missing $350,000 in mandated expenses ($150,000 for step increases; $200,000 for dispatchers); (2) $240,000 in unnecessary discretionary spending ($70,000 for the supervisor’s campaign manager and $170,000 in deferred compensation for elected officials, political appointees and department heads); (3) termination of employment for 13 town employees; (4) uncut salaries for elected officials, political appointees and department heads; (5) Long Island’s highest tax increase. Grievances and lawsuits are already under way.

Lingering tension among Town Board members continues, as reflected in Mr. Walter’s parting comment at the budget vote. “This was just a media circus,” he said. “This was a show put on by some council members just for the media.”

If this budget folly was indeed a show, as Mr. Walter suggests, it was one sorry performance for which our residents and 13 fired employees will pay dearly.

How about this for an alternative, happier ending? A budget without unnecessary spending, with mandated expenses included, 13 of our neighbors’ jobs saved, Long Island’s highest tax increase avoided and voluntary salary givebacks from elected officials, political appointees and department heads. (Recall that former supervisor Phil Cardinale gave $17,000 of his salary back to the town.)

There is a better way.


Mr. Villella is a former Riverhead Town supervisor and chairman of the town Democratic Committee.

11/22/10 5:49pm
11/22/2010 5:49 PM

There were statements that appeared in a News-Review article last week, “Cost to shift on big parties,” that invite scrutiny. It would be too much to comment on all of them. So let’s examine a few.
In the article, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter is quoted as saying, “…because you’ve got too many vineyards and too many farmers abusing the situation.”
There are only four wineries that actually produce wine on their premises in the Town of Riverhead. There are also perhaps six tasting facilities, most of which also own a vineyard, for a total of 10 establishments. If Mr. Walter’s number of $50,000 worth of “excessive cost” to town taxpayers is correct, that is an average of $5000 per winery.
We at Paumanok Vineyards have seen the fire marshal once in the last two years,  to inspect a tent that had been erected, making sure there were fire extinguishers in the tent, an exit sign — for a tent with no walls — and that the extension cords used were commercial grade. That inspection, including driving time, took less than one hour. My guess is that this was worth $25 in overtime costs, if he was paid a $50 per-hour base pay, in two years.
At $1,000 per event, Mr. Walter would have to permit 125 events to gross $125,000. If currently the town is inspecting 125 events, the $50,000 excessive cost would amount to $400 per event. That translates into a rate of $800 per hour for the fire marshal, since the overtime portion is half an hour of extra pay  per hour worked on Saturday. I do not know the salary of the fire marshal but clearly this does not add up if the extra time is an hour per event.
If enacted, such a measure will essentially eliminate small events and foster the advent of big events with hundreds if not thousands of people. Because at 100 people, $10 per person is a large penalty, but at 1,000 people $1 per person is a rounding error. If that is what the Town Board wants then it is on the right track.
Now what about the vineyards. Are they in fact the nuisance the town seems to make them? Are the residents getting the short end of the stick? Would the town rather get rid of the vineyards and get those of us who are fed up with the creeping taxation decide to pull out our vines and extend Queens to the North Fork?
Wineries have been credited, by many who remember, to have revitalized the North Fork. They have created hundreds of good-paying jobs in this town. They pay already very high taxes as they require extensive facilities to operate. The bed & breakfast business has taken off largely thanks to the wineries. The restaurants are busier thanks to winery visitors, so are retail stores, gas stations, hotels, delis, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, mechanics etc. There is little question that vineyards have had a large positive impact on the local economy. Those who benefit from our industry should make their views known to Mr. Walter as he is embarking on a plan to raise taxes on small businesses.
Vineyards have kept hundreds of acres as agriculture, whereas it would be far more profitable to develop this acreage. For that alone, Mr. Walter should think instead about how to help vineyards stay in business, for his costs would go out of sight if a single vineyard is developed into housing.
Now let us discuss the real issues and what can be done about large parties — defined as parties with 100 guests or more — as Mr. Walter should have done.
• The money generated from the fees. At 125 events per season, it means that every winery and tasting room in the town of Riverhead will be having an event every weekend during the 12-week peak season. There is a single tasting facility where that actually happens; that will count for 12 events. The rest will hold one or two large events per season, each. That is a total of less than 30 events. Where are the remaining 95 events coming from? Is this a fee to recover costs or just an old fashioned tax? Or is the Town Board misinformed? Either way, the proposed $1,000 fees will not raise anywhere near the $125,000 predicted in the town’s 2011 budget.
• With the town complaint that wineries generate noise, the Blues and Mustic Festival downtown generates noise. Traffic generates noise. Parties in backyards of every house generate noise. Boom boxes in cars generate noise. Emergency vehicles generate noise. Corn mazes generate noise. Catering facilities generate noise when they hold outdoors weddings. Irrigation pumps generate noise. There is a noise ordinance on the books. Enforce it.
And how does charging an arbitrary fee make anyone suddenly lower their noise? Isn’t it about enforcing current noise regulations? Don’t violations carry substantial fees and don’t these pay for themselves?
• Mr. Walter was also quoted as saying, “the residents are getting the short end of the stick.” If that is true certainly it needs to be corrected. We have too much respect for our neighbors to be cavalier about something like this. Therefore I challenge Mr. Walter to be very specific and detail, by establishment, any instance where we have been so negligent. If there is an establishment that is abusive, why generalize and stigmatize a whole industry?  If he does not come up with specifics he should retract his statement.
Now, if Mr. Walter has a real problem and wants to craft intelligent solutions, why does he not invite the wineries and tasting facilities to a meeting? He should be prepared to present facts not innuendos and we should be prepared to own up to our problems where they exist. If we are to prosper we certainly need the support of our community. And if he has issues with a particular establishment that happens to be a “vineyard” then why does he not deal with that establishment with existing laws? Since when is accusing everyone for the sins of one is something we tolerate?
As the math above shows, it would appear Mr. Walter is making little sense. He has a choice to retract his statements or come out with specifics. We understand crafting a budget is difficult, but this town deserves better leadership — not cheap shots.

Mr. Massoud is the owner and operator of Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

11/16/10 9:08pm
11/16/2010 9:08 PM

In last week’s News-Review Equal Time piece (“Supervisor Sean Walter fools only himself”), our former supervisor, Phil Cardinale, appeared to be confused as to why Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter was “happy” about the collapse of the Rechler Purchase of 300 acres at EPCAL. I would like to point out that I am also very happy to see the end of this contract. Rechler’s proposal to build nearly 1,000 housing units on 300 acres may have been Phil’s idea of industrial development, but I certainly didn’t think so. At the reduced price of $60,000 an acre, it would have been a home builder’s fantasy. Did that idiotic proposal qualify Rechler as the most experienced and best developer on Long Island? Phil should wake up! This project would not have created quality jobs in our town. This was a lose-lose proposition for Riverhead.

Now we will turn to another of the former supervisor’s giveaway deals gone awry. Our Town Board voted last Friday to terminate the contract with Riverhead Resorts. The group could not come up with a $6 million payment that was long overdue. Instead, Resorts representatives brought a check for the equivalent of $3.9 million in British pounds that was cancelled after a few days. Along with a price reduction from $155 million to $108 million, the developer wanted the contract extended to January 2012. With their struggle to produce a legitimate $3.9 million check, what makes anyone think they would ever be financially able to build the $2 billion ski mountain resort? These were not competent business people.

In response to Phil’s complaint about my “Great Walkout” on Riverhead Resorts, I will make it very clear that I had already met with them and their lawyers on numerous occasions over a 10-month period. I told them that if they couldn’t show me the money, I was done! When once again they showed up with no money, I stood up and said, “Enough is enough.” I would waste no more of our taxpayer money sitting through yet another publicity stunt. Any hardworking farm boy knows a horse thief when he sees one.

Phil made the deal with Riverhead Resorts and danced with the group for three years. The Resorts people made the mistake of saving the last dance for me. I walked out; the dance was over.

Dare we even talk about Phil’s failure with the Apollo Group and downtown? The former supervisor doesn’t know the definition of competence and sophistication during negotiations. Putting his failed follies behind us, we can now look to a bright future in the development of EPCAL. Working with an updated land-use plan, the Town Board can move in a different direction toward a well-thought-out subdivision. We can now realize the property’s real potential as an economic engine driving this town for generations to come.

Mr. Gabrielsen is a member of the Riverhead Town Board.